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The Religion of Journalists

Stanley Rothman has written a thoughtful critique (“Religion’s Bad Press,” January) of the report “Bridging the Gap: Religion and the News Media,” coauthored by myself and the Rev. Jimmy L. Allen. Since I had major responsibility for its research and writing. I would like to address some of Mr. Rothman’s points.

Our nine-month study at Vanderbilt’s Freedom Forum First Amendment Center and the resulting report was based not only on a mail survey of journalists and clergy in six denominations but also on interviews with religious figures (many outside the surveyed denominations), educators, and journalists, plus a review of pertinent literature.

Mr. Rothman understandably focuses on our minimal survey findings on the religiosity of journalists since we pointed to them as a corrective to popular impressions gained from even more incidental findings by Rothman and S. Robert Lichter in 1980. Many religious people unhappy with religion news coverage point to their data showing 50 percent of journalists with no religion and 86 percent seldom or never going to religious services. Those figures came from a much larger profile of “the media elite,” as the subsequent book was titled, in which the two scholars directed interviews at ten news outlets in New York and Washington.

We tried to say carefully in our report that others who cite the figures see them as typical of any U.S. newsroom. In the next breath, unfortunately, many critics of the news media see that as the primary reason for religion’s generally inadequate coverage and the news media blunders on stories involving faith.

The problem between journalists and religionists is much more complex. Secularizing trends in America, the feeling that religion is a private matter, ignorance about religion by journalists leading to a bias of neglect, the news media’s rising influence in culture”all contribute to tensions between these two beneficiaries of the First Amendment.

Saying newspeople are an irreligious lot and letting it go at that is simplistic”and not quite true. Our questionnaires found that 35 percent of U.S. newspaper editors said religion was “very important” in their lives and 37 percent said it was “somewhat important.” Our survey was answered mostly by editors at small-to-middle size newspapers. A similar question in 1992 by Wilhoit and Weaver of Indiana University”posed nationally to all levels of print and broadcast journalists”found 35.7 percent calling religion very important and 34.3 percent saying it was somewhat important.

Mr. Rothman notes that our mail survey of editors received “only” a 48 percent response, but the survey director, Robert O. Wyatt of Middle Tennessee State University, termed it rather good. The First Amendment Center report was supposed to fall somewhere between being academic and journalistic in format, but Wyatt could provide the detailed findings and procedural data for anyone who desires them.

Mr. Rothman appears upset with the report’s introduction by John Seigenthaler, chairman of the center, who felt that the 240 journalists interviewed in the 1980 New York/D.C. survey were an unrepresentative number. Actually, I did not note more precisely in “Bridging the Gap” that Lichter & Rothman picked 238 journalists at random for hour-long interviews and that “only” 74 percent of them completed the interviews.

But I felt that would be quibbling. Richard Ostling, longtime religion editor of Time magazine, told me that he was one of those interviewed and that he felt that data showing the predominance of liberal, religiously inactive journalists at the major news outlets sounded right to him from personal experience.

We also asked journalists to specify what religious category they identify with. Less than 10 percent of the editors picked “nonbeliever or humanist.” Mr. Rothman indicates that the choice of “none” would have drawn a higher response, but I frankly doubt it. We also surveyed religion specialists at newspapers, newsmagazines, and wire services; they rated religion “very important” (75 percent) and only 4 percent identified themselves as nonbeliever or humanist.

Mr. Rothman and Mr. Lichter both argue that a question on religious attendance would have provided a better yardstick. Maybe so. We didn’t ask that because, contrary to Rothman, the study was not designed as a “full-scale study of journalists’ religious beliefs and their relation to the coverage of religion.” We focused mainly on the depth of the conflicts and reasons for religious unhappiness with the news media. We quoted a variety of news critics, including religious conservatives. We made recommendations for “bridging the gap.”

As Mr. Rothman observes, Allen and I agree with him and Lichter on many causes for religion-media conflict. “It is not clear, then, why they criticize our work,” Rothman writes. True, we gave voice to their critics, but also quoted their supporters. Allen and I found fault primarily with others’ misuse of their survey’s replies on questions about religion.

John Dart
Religion Writer
Los Angeles Times

Stanley Rothman replies :

I appreciate Mr. Dart’s courteous reply to my essay. I believe that the New York Times reporting of his study is partly responsible for the confusion that followed. Nevertheless, I also believe that there are problems with both his study and the introduction by John Seigenthaler that he has not addressed. However, for the most part I prefer to leave it to the readers of First Things to judge for themselves after reading the report, my evaluation of it, and Mr. Dart’s reply.

I’ll only use this occasion to make a few rather elementary points about survey research methods. (1) We did not suggest that inquiring about church attendance would provide a better yardstick than the questions asked, only that it would provide additional information required for evaluating respondents’ commitment to American religious institutions. Very good studies are now available which indicate that expressions of the importance of religion or particular religious beliefs are not necessarily the best indicators of such commitment. Knowledge of religious activity does add important information.

(2) Mr. Dart would indeed have been quibbling had he stressed that our response rate was “only” 74 percent of a random sample of 238. He would also have been wrong. We did not interview 74 percent of 238 potential respondents. Rather the number 238 represents the 74 percent of those contacted whom we did interview. Nor is it to the point whether one “feels” 238 is an “unrepresentative” number. In fact, there is no such thing as a “representative” number. The validity of statistical inference depends upon sample selection, data collection procedures, response rate, and size of the sample and universe. Our sample was appropriate for making inferences about the “media elite.”

Any elementary survey research book will tell you that a response rate below 50, or even 55, percent, is very low and the results must be tested and used cautiously. To rely on authority in this matter is not satisfactory. On the other hand a response rate of 74 percent is very high, lending confidence that the sample results are not skewed by response bias.

John Dart’s comments on this issue are not really to the point. In making them he reveals an ignorance of basic survey research techniques, which is one of the problems with his essay.

Religion in the Academy

I am a graduate student in History at Indiana University. Since First Things has given continuing attention to the place of religion in higher education, I thought you might appreciate hearing from a sympathetic reader”one who is female and Jewish”concerning the blatant discrimination against Christianity and “religious motives” in academe, and especially in History departments.

When I applied to IU in 1991, I stated in my letter of purpose that I was interested in scholasticism and Church history, Reformation history, and a myriad of related subjects (e.g., medieval psychology, the Aristotelian tradition, the rise of the universities, etc.), which I believed fell within the discipline of history. Now after three semesters I am being told by my department that I need to transfer into some other department such as Religious Studies or Philosophy if I want to study the history of the Church or scholasticism, as these topics no longer fall within the discipline of history. “No one does that sort of thing anymore,” they say.

Looking at earlier catalogues, this was not the case several years ago, or even two years ago, when there were faculty in the History Department who could teach more general sorts of Medieval History courses, which included the history of the Church. Now all we get are courses on “medieval sexuality” and “medieval women’s spirituality” taught from a feminist perspective in which the Church is the enemy. There has been no effort to balance the curriculum; semester after semester it is the same thing.

The catalogue I was sent in 1991 listed a wide selection of appealing courses and a faculty to teach those courses. Little did I know at that time that the catalogue contained every course that had ever been taught at IU, and that it had no bearing on what would actually be taught in the future. Moreover, that the faculty with whom I had hoped to study, who taught more traditional courses, had either already retired or were on the verge of doing so.

These sorts of things are not so unusual, I now know, from talking to graduate students at other universities. However, in my case, the consequences were particularly detrimental because, as I have indicated, the remaining faculty in my area actively discourage research in religious history and in what I call the “intellectual history” of the Western world. In addition, while the catalogue says that the History Department “encourages interdisciplinary approaches,” the reality is that, unless you want to do something on “medieval women” or “medieval sexuality,” the department will not accommodate your interdisciplinary interests.

Women’s spirituality, lesbian nuns, eating disorders, “Jesus as mother,” transvestisms, and a myriad of other more popular topics are deemed to be “on the cutting edge” by the professors here, who call this “intellectual history.” But in these courses you never hear about the real intellectuals of the medieval period, since they happened to be theologians and male.

In the literature and in history textbooks, religious motivations and idealistic intentions of historical figures, if male, are always rejected and replaced with more mundane and cynical explanations linked to “power” and personal gain. Humanism, for example, in contemporary scholarship is treated solely as “a money-making proposition,” or as “a pathway to professionalism by the ruling elite,” and the ethical and religious component of the humanist movement (Petrarch, Erasmus, etc.) is completely missed. Students are not taught that the Classics were once valued by society as a way of instilling morality and goodness in its citizens”everything now has to be depicted as part of some sinister plot or conspiracy.

My department has recently decided that it isn’t feasible to hire someone to teach Reformation history (replacing Gerald Strauss, who retired a few years ago). When I asked why an area as rich and as important as the Reformation would no longer be taught (or if taught on occasion, by someone whose expertise is eighteenth-century France), I was told by faculty members that the Reformation simply isn’t fashionable any more.

Historians here teach courses on the “social construction of the body” and on the “history (i.e., social construction) of sexuality” because of the popularity of Michel Foucault. No one here questions Foucault’s authority to do history; yet getting a course cross-listed with History from one of the less fashionable disciples is virtually impossible since they say that the professor of that course isn’t qualified to teach history . . . .

However, women’s studies and Jewish studies courses are routinely cross-listed. Medieval Philosophy, without doubt a significant part of the intellectual history of the Middle Ages, will not be accepted here towards the History M.A. because it doesn’t fit into the political agenda of the department.

Since I am female and not a Christian, I do not run the risk of being labeled a sexist or a religious fanatic by demanding (not that it will do much good) that medieval history include Church history, or that Reformation history be taught, or for wanting religion to be at least considered as a possible motive in interpreting human action. And I have a 3.8 GPA so that no one can say that I have other motivations . . . .

Emily Nedell
Bloomington, IN

Solving the Crime Problem?

I would like to add my small opinion to the large ideas presented by Bill Bennett and Charles Colson on crime and punishment (January).

What I have discovered, working as a volunteer at a nearby prison, is that most inmate religious conversions are superficial at best. People are incarcerated because they are playing a big con game. The biggest con they play is within themselves: “I wasn’t using crack”I was just selling it!”; “I’m not an alcoholic. Sure, I get drunk and high every day, and I spend $500 per day on my crack use, but I’m not addicted!”; and of course there is the classic, “I was framed!”

Prisoners are quick studies at the con, soaking up all the benefits of the social welfare state. They learn how to look good and act good. They lift weights, shoot hoops, learn a trade, get their GEDs, make dozens of meetings with therapists, AA volunteers, psychiatrists, chaplains, and social workers. They learn to mouth all of the right therapeutic and evangelical language, but in most cases none of this has any lasting effect . . . .

At the same time, locking up people who are basically out of control because of some primary pathology”usually drug and alcohol addiction (98 percent of the inmates in the correctional facility I work at were high when they were arrested)”and the pathological anger and resentment that comes from violent families who are also addicted”doesn’t work. Fear of either incarceration or re-incarceration has little or no effect on someone who is incapable of thinking rationally, whose mind is warped by mind-altering substances, who has no control over his behavior”drunk or sober”because if he is not high he is thinking about getting high.

I propose a third way: public humiliation. The key difference that I have noted in the process of reform of a human psyche is whether or not, in the psychological language of the day, the person has suffered an “ego deflation in depth.” I believe that, without a profoundly humbling experience-and for some this requires extremely humiliating circumstances-the chances of real change are negligible.

Incarceration alone does not produce humility. In fact, the whole system is designed to feed the egos of self-centered people. Convicts get more attention in jail than they ever got at home, and there is no wife, no girlfriend or parent to nag them, only caring professionals. Plus they can get high whenever they want, and if they are willing to lower their standards a bit, they can even get whatever sexual gratification they desire.

What is needed are community-based steps to publicly humiliate all offenders. They should be tied in stocks in the middle of the public square. They should not be escorted to the bathroom. They should be sheltered only in extremely inclement weather. The public should be encouraged to hurl verbal insults, as well as physical objects-such as rotten vegetables. A police guard should be present to prevent extremely violent assaults only.

I guarantee that a daily dose of such humiliation for up to thirty days, longer for violent criminals, will dramatically reduce the crime problem, and would be of therapeutic value to a citizenry that has for too long been deprived of the pleasure of witnessing true justice . . . .

(The Rev.) Owen Jones
Rose Hill Estate
Aiken, SC

On Peter Singer

As one of those who took the silencing and worse of Peter Singer in Germany to be an issue of academic freedom and free speech, and who also replied to Jenny Teichman in The New Criterion , may I comment on Richard John Neuhaus’ “A Logic Extended” (Public Square, January)?

Fr. Neuhaus writes that the Germans “think they have heard Mr. Singer’s doctrines before and they led to most unfortunate consequences.” But he is all too silent on another unfortunate doctrine the Germans have heard before: that books and subjects may be banned and speakers hounded from the lecture hall when their views do not agree with reigning orthodoxy.

Barry R. Gross
National Program Officer
National Association of Scholars
Princeton, NJ

Fr. Neuhaus’ very friendly remarks about my paper “The False Philosophy of Peter Singer” ( The New Criterion , April 1993) are somewhat marred by two unsound inferences in his final paragraph. These non sequiturs amount to the accusation that my work is either naive or sloppy or both: I hope therefore that you will allow me to correct him.

In my paper I note that Singer appeals to a person-versus-human distinction in order to reject the concept of human rights. Fr. Neuhaus leaps recklessly to the conclusion that I “suggest” that Singer invented the distinction. Au contraire : I specifically state that Singer specifically states that he borrowed the distinction from Locke. Moreover, as every professional philosopher knows, or ought to know, the distinction was ancient even in Locke’s day-it comes to us from Boethius. Fr. Neuhaus seems not to know this: he appears to attribute the distinction to Roe v. Wade!

The final sentence of his comment reads: “As fine as Ms. Teichman’s article is, one is always a little surprised when very sensible people discuss these questions [i.e., euthanasia etc.] in a manner that ignores the reality and rationale of abortion.” Although it is pleasant to be described as fine and dandy and sensible, it remains necessary to point out that Fr. Neuhaus has made another reckless leap in the dark. For, firstly, I take the connection between Singer’s views and “the reality and rationale of abortion” to be utterly obvious. It might be necessary to draw attention to the utterly obvious if one is writing for a lowbrow newspaper, but The New Criterion is not what I’d call lowbrow. And, secondly, whatever some young reviewers may think, it simply isn’t possible for an author to write about everything all at once. As it happens I’ve written about abortion on other occasions”see, e.g., the November 1993 issue of The New Criterion .

Still, I guess Fr. Neuhaus’ overall intentions were kindly, so I will end by thanking him for those.

Jenny Teichman
New Hall
Cambridge University

Richard John Neuhaus replies :

It was not obvious to me, upon reading Ms. Teichman’s April 1993 article, that the abortion connection was obvious to her. I am glad that it was and is. I did not mean to suggest that the person/human distinction originated with Roe v. Wade , only that that is its most salient use in our political culture. Finally, it has been a very long time since I’ve been called a young reviewer, and I thank her for that.


My reaction to Kari Jenson Gold’s “Getting Real” (January) was much like that of the old backwoodsman who said after hearing an erudite and masterfully articulated sermon by a famous preacher/theologian, “I doggies! I couldn’a sed it better m’self.” In other words, Bravo!

Irene Prater Dell
Carl Junction, MO

Making Distinctions

In his review of Andrew Kimbrell’s The Human Body Shop: The Engineering and Marketing of Life (December 1993), Dr. Bernard Nathanson seems to place organ transplants in the same moral category as sperm trafficking, surrogate motherhood, and the transplanting of tissue from aborted fetuses. If so, this is a serious lapse in judgment on the part of a defender of human life.

It should be noted that the same Paul VI whose Humane Vitae , in Dr. Nathanson’s words, “gave us the wisdom to recognize how life was being trashed, and supplied us with the moral and ethical means to oppose it,” approved organ transplantation. In fact, the careful reasoning of a previous pope, Pius XII, provided the ethical criteria now used to determine legal death before organ retrieval is allowed.

By indiscriminately lumping organ transplants with technologies that radically degrade human life, pro-lifers unwittingly ally themselves with some of the most anti-life forces around. Indeed, in his review Dr. Nathanson often sounds less like Paul VI and more like former Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm. (“Who will pay for this technology?”)

General revulsion may be an understandable reaction to today’s biotechnology, considering its many atrocities. But moral distinctions should never be abandoned, or blurred. The stakes are too high. Just ask that other committed defender of human life, Pennsylvania Gov. Robert Casey, whose own life was saved by a heart/liver transplant last June.

Beverly Bailey
Portland, OR

Bernard N. Nathanson replies :

I regret that Ms. Bailey has misinterpreted the gravamen of my review of Andrew Kimbrell’s book. Perhaps I have only myself to blame in that I was not clear enough in my comments regarding organ transplants, and for that lapse I apologize.

As a physician who has practiced bedside medicine for thirty-five years I am still in awe of the truly miraculous nature of organ transplants to aid those who are dying as a result of diseased or disordered vital organs. The technology of adult organ transplantation surely stands as one of the momentous advances in medical science in the last century.

But, like Mr. Kimbrell, I am concerned with the troubling ethical issues that dog this marvelous technology. For example, who decides who is to receive the organ in question? We now have a waiting list of perhaps 25,000 patients who need kidneys and an available supply of 6,000 or so kidneys. Should American citizens automatically be placed at the top of the list of recipients, ahead of legal and illegal immigrants? Should there be an age limit for potential recipients, i.e., should a thirty-year old be placed ahead of a fifty-five-year old? Is someone who has already rejected one kidney to be placed at the bottom of the list, no matter how ill?

I am also concerned with the matter of commerce in organs. In Europe this is already a flourishing industry: is it ethical or just to permit the family of a patient to bid for a needed organ? Arthur Caplan’s essay “If I were a Rich Man, Could I Buy a Pancreas?” maps accurately the ethical land mines in this regard.

When I wrote that “the only satisfactory resolution is to ban the entire technology and to look to infinitely less expensive . . . solutions to these especially heart-breaking diseases and disorders” I was of course referring specifically to the transplantation of fetal tissue from aborted fetuses into ill adults. The ethical objections to that technology are too obvious to adumbrate here, but it is significant that since my review appeared we have leaped an enormously significant hurdle: up to a short time ago, fetal tissue transplant (objectionable as it is) was being promoted as a cure for disease. Now, thanks to the work of Dr. Gosden and his co-workers in Edinburgh (the transplantation of fetal ovaries into adult post-menopausal females to restore child-bearing potential until the age of-what?-one hundred?) fetal tissue is now regarded as a source for replacing worn-out parts and not merely for the treatment of disease.

What next? Fetal scalp transplant for the balding? Fetal gum transplant for the edentulous? Fetal testicular transplant for the aging male whose libido is flagging? Gosden et al. have breached irreversibly the ethical sound barrier, and there is no turning back. The logical end point of this bizarre twist on transplantation technology is that each time a part, tissue, or organ wears out we can replace it with a fetal part, thus to achieve a life span (if you have the means) of five hundred years or more . . . why not somatic immortality, indeed?

Chilling, no? Well, it’s here; now, what is to be done?

A Freudian Slip

A typographical error crept into my review of Love and Friendship by Allan Bloom (January). A quotation from Bloom is transcribed as: “reading Freud is the most neurotic experience one could imagine.” The word neurotic is a misprint. The original reads: “reading Freud is the most unerotic experience one could imagine.”

Edward T. Oakes, S.J.
New York University
New York, NY

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